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National Endowment for the Arts 


a. Museum ndLibrary 



The Shawl 






The Shawl 


The National Endowment for the Arts is a public agency dedicated to supporting 
excellence in the arts — both new and established — bringing the arts to all Americans, 
and providing leadership in arts education. Established by Congress in 1965 as an 
endowment independent agency of the federal government, the Endowment is the nations largest 


annual hinder of the arts, bringing great art to all 50 states, including rural areas, inner 

cities, and military bases. 

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works at the national level and in coordination with state and local organizations to sustain 

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professional development. 

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Additional support for the Big Read has also been provided by the WK. Kellogg 



Published by 

National Endowment for the Arts 
1 100 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W 
Washington, D.C. 20506-0001 
(202) 682-5400 


Bolick, Katie. "The Many Faces of Cynthia Oziclc" Atlantic Unbound, May 15, 1997. Web address: 

Ozick, Cynthia. The Shawl. New York: Random House, 1990. 

Mark, Ber. Uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto. New York: Schocken Books, 1975. 

Niezabitowska, Malgorzata. Remnants: The Last Jews of Poland. New York: Friendly Press, Inc., 1986. 

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Web site. 2007. Washington, DC: 
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 


David Kipen, NEA Director of National Reading Initiatives 

Sarah Bainter Cunningham, PhD, NEA Director of Arts Education 

Writers: Molly Thomas-Hicks for the National Endowment for the arts, with a preface by Dana Gioia 

Series Editor: Molly Thomas- Hicks for the National Endowment for the Arts 

Graphic Design: Fletcher Design/Washington D.C. 

Image Credits 

Cover Portrait: John SherfBus for the Big Read. Page iv: Women in the Warsaw Ghetto, Courtesy of The 
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; book cover, courtesy of Vintage Books, a division of Random 
House, New York. Page 1: Caricature of Dana Gioia by John SherfBus. Inside back coven © Nancy 

Table of Contents 

Introduction 1 

Suggested Teaching Schedule 2 

Lesson One: Biography 4 

Lesson Two: Culture and History 5 

Lesson Three: Narrative and Point of View 6 

Lesson Four: Characters 7 

Lesson Five: Figurative Language 8 

Lesson Six: Symbols 9 

Lesson Seven: Character Development 10 

Lesson Eight: The Plot Unfolds 11 

Lesson Nine: Themes of the Book 12 

Lesson Ten: What Makes a Great Book? 13 

Essay Topics 14 

Capstone Projects 15 

Handout One: Jewish Life in Pre-World War II Poland 16 

Handout Two: The Warsaw Ghetto 17 

Handout Three: Jewish Immigration to the United States 18 

Teaching Resources 19 

NCTE Standards 20 

The most astounding thing was 
that the most ordinary streetcar, 
bumping along on the most 
ordinary tracks, and carrying the 
most ordinary citizens going from 
one section of Warsaw to another, 
ran straight into the place of our 
misery. Every day, and several times 
a day, we had these witnesses." 

— from The Shawl 



Welcome to the Big Read, a major initiative from the National Endowment 
for the Arts. Designed to revitalize the role of literary reading in American 
culture, the Big Read hopes to unite communities through great literature, 
as well as inspire students to become life-long readers. 

This Big Read Teacher's Guide contains ten lessons to lead you through 
Cynthia Ozick's classic novel, The Shawl. Each lesson has four sections: a 
focus topic, discussion activities, writing exercises, and homework 
assignments. In addition, we have provided capstone projects and suggested 
essay topics, as well as handouts with more background information about 
the novella, the historical period, and the author. All lessons dovetail with 
the state language arts standards required in the fiction genre. 

The Big Read teaching materials also include a CD. Packed with interviews, 
commentaries, and excerpts from the book, the Big Read CD presents 
first-hand accounts of why The Shawl remains so compelling nearly two 
decades after its initial publication. Some of America's most celebrated 
writers, scholars, and actors have volunteered their time to make these Big 
Read CDs exciting additions to the classroom. 

Finally, the Big Read Reader's Guide deepens your exploration with 
interviews, booklists, timelines, and historical information. We hope this 
guide and syllabus allow you to have fun with your students while 
introducing them to the work of a great American author. 

From the NEA, we wish you an exciting and productive school year. 

~£5lufc Mjte\^ 

Dana Gioia 

Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts 

National Endowment for the Arts THE BIG READ • | 


Day One 

FOCUS: Biography 

Activities: Listen to the Big Read CD. Discuss 
Reader's Guide essays. Write an essay on a 
career goal or lifetime dream. 

Homework: Read the opening story (pp. 3-10) 
and Handouts One and Two. 


Day Two 

FOCUS: Culture and History 

Activities: Discuss essays from the Readers 
and Teacher's Guides. Examine Ozick's 
description of the death camp. Write an essay 
on whether or not genocide could take place 
in today's society. 

Homework Read from page 1 3 until the 
break on page 39. 


Day Three 

FOCUS: Narrative and Point of View 

Activities: Discuss the novel's narrative 
perspective. Write a scene from the first 
person point-of-view of a character other 
than Rosa. 

Homework: Read from the break on page 39 
until the break on page 53. 

Day Four 

FOCUS: Characters 

Activities: Read Handout Three. Discuss 
Stella's letter to Rosa, Simon Persky's role as a 
foil to Rosa, and the life Rosa invents for 
Magda. Write three paragraphs considering 
whether choice is "the only true freedom." 

Homework: Finish reading the book. 


Day Five 

FOCUS: Figurative Language 

Activities: Discuss figurative language and the 
importance of metaphor in Ozick's writing. 
Analyze the parable of the lettuce on pages 
67-69. Write an essay on why Rosa refuses to 
forget the Holocaust. 

Homework: Review the book to find 
examples of objects that can be considered 


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Day Six 

FOCUS: Symbols 

Activities: Discuss how Magda's shawl and 
Rosa's underwear function as symbols. Write 
an essay on what buttons might symbolize to 

Homework: List Rosa's strengths and 
weaknesses supporting each trait with a 
passage from the text. 


Day Seven 

FOCUS: Character Development 

Activities: Using the list of character traits 
from the previous night's homework, discuss 
whether or not Rosa is a sympathetic, heroic 
protagonist. Analyze Persky's effectiveness as a 
comic character. Write an essay on the 
character most highly assimilated to American 

Homework: Identify three major turning 
points in the book. 


Day Eight 

FOCUS: The Plot Unfolds 

Activities: Discuss the book's turning points 
and what we learn about Rosa during those 
moments. Outline a sequel to the book. 

Homework: Identify three major themes in 
the book. 


Day Nine 

FOCUS: Themes of the Book 

Activities: Discuss themes of Memory/History, 
Dignity, and Life. 

Homework: Begin working on essays. 


Day Ten 

FOCUS: What Makes a Great Book? 

Activities: Explore the qualities of a great 
work of fiction. 

Homework: Work on essays. 

National Endowment for the Arts 


Lesson One 



The authors life can inform and expand the readers understanding of a 
work of fiction. One practice of examining a literary work, biographical 
criticism, looks through the lens of an authors experience. In this lesson, 
explore the authors life to more fully understand The Shawl. 

Born in 1 928 to a family of Russian immigrants, Cynthia Ozick spent her 
childhood in the Pelham Bay area of the Bronx. Her parents owned a 
neighborhood pharmacy. Ozick spent afternoons and evenings reading and 
re-reading such favorites as classic fairy tales and Louisa May Alcott s Little 
Women. Acceptance to Hunter College High School in New York, an 
academically competitive school for young women, gave her the confidence 
she needed to pursue her goal of becoming a writer. 

Discussion Activities 

Listen to the Big Read CD. Students should take notes as they listen. Copy and 
distribute the Reader's Guide essays "Cynthia Ozick" and "An Interview with 
Cynthia Ozick." Divide the class into two groups. Assign one essay to each group. 
After reading and discussing the essays, each group will present what they learned. 
Ask students to add a creative twist to make their presentation memorable. 

Writing Exercise 

Cynthia Ozick knew from the time she was a very small child that she would be a 
writer. Have students write a three-paragraph essay on the career they plan to 
pursue or another goal that will define their lives. When did they first become 
aware of their desire? Did they find encouragement from family, friends, or 
teachers? Was there pressure for or against their choice? If so, why? Ask students 
to consider what provides them with the confidence and discipline needed to 
achieve their dreams. 

[J] Homework 

Read the opening short story,'The Shawl" (pp. 3-10) and Handouts One and Two. 
Ask students to make a list of ten adjectives or phrases Ozick uses to describe 
Rosa's, Magda's, or Stella's experience in the death camp. 


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Culture and 

Cultural and historical contexts give birth to the dilemmas and themes at 
the heart of a work of fiction. Studying these contexts and appreciating the 
intricate details of the time and place can assist us in comprehending the 
motivations of the characters. In this lesson, use cultural and historical 
contexts to begin to explore the book. 

Though the exact location is never mentioned, the book's opening story 
takes place in a Nazi death camp during World War II. In the novella, we 
learn that Rosa comes from a well-educated and highly assimilated family of 
Polish Jews. Home to Europe's largest Jewish population prior to World 
War II, Poland served as a center of learning and culture for the Jewish 
community worldwide. After the Nazi invasion in 1939, all Jews were 
forced to live in restricted areas, known as ghettoes. Rosa recounts some of 
her experiences in the Warsaw ghetto. Despite a brave rebellion, most of the 
Jews detained in the Warsaw ghetto were eventually sent to Treblinka — an 
extermination camp fifty miles outside the city. 

Discussion Activities 

Copy and distribute Teachers Guide Handout One/'Jewish Life in Pre- World War 
II Poland," Handout Two, "The Warsaw Ghetto," and the Reader's Guide essay/The 
Holocaust." Divide your class into three groups. Assign each group an essay. 
Starting with "Jewish Life," ask groups to present what they learned to the class. 

Using the adjectives collected for homework, what emotions are captured through 
Ozick's vivid language? Why is Magda like a "tiger"? Near the end of the story, we 
read about "green meadows" and "innocent tiger lilies." Does this glimpse to the 
green meadows imply hope or hopelessness for Rosa, Stella and Magda? Why 
would Ozick provide us with a glimpse of beauty before a horrific event takes 

Writing Exercise 

Ask your students to write a two-page essay considering whether or not a 
genocide such as the Holocaust can take place today. What, if any, responsibility 
would an average person bear? How can we, as a humane society, prevent or stop 
racial prejudice and genocide? 

EJ Homework 

Read from page 1 3 until the break on page 39. Ask students to pay close attention 
to the way Rosa perceives her surroundings. What does she mean when she says, 
"Once I thought the worst was the worst after that nothing could be the worst 
But now I see, even after the worst there's still more"? 

National Endowment for the Arts 


Lesson " hree 


and Point of 

The narrator tells the story with a specific perspective informed by his or 
her beliefs and experiences. The narrator can be a major or minor character. 
The narrator weaves her or his point of view, including ignorance and bias, 
into the telling of the tale. A first-person narrator participates in the events 
of the novel using "I." A distanced narrator (often not a character) does not 
participate in the events of the story and uses third person (he, she, they) to 
narrate the story. The distanced narrator can be omniscient, able to read the 
minds of all characters within the book. Ultimately, the type of narrator 
determines the point of view from which the story is told. 

The Shawl employs a third-person narrative voice that does not participate 
in the story or novellas action, but has access to Rosa's private thoughts and 
feelings. Further, the narrator uses descriptive language and imagery that 
evoke Rosa's thoughts and moods. For instance, at the beginning of the 
novella, the narrator describes a "shrieking pulley," "squads of dying flies," 
and streets like a "furnace." Ozick uses these images in the narration to 
underscore how deeply memories of the Holocaust affect Rosa, even more 
than thirty years after the war's end. 

Discussion Activities 

Share the images mentioned above with your students. Ask them to find other 
instances where the narrator describes people, places, or things as if looking 
through Rosa's eyes with her unique personal history. Ask your students why Rosa 
feels that "even after the worst, there's still more." How does her perception of her 
surroundings feed into her despair? 

Sometimes the narration is so closely aligned with Rosa's perspective it seems as if 
the book could have been written first-person. Why might Ozick have chosen to 
use such a close third-person point of view rather than writing in first-person from 
Rosa's viewpoint? Does third person offer any objectivity that might be lost if Rosa 
told her own story? Why or why not? 

Writing Exercise 

Ask your students to choose one character other than Rosa that has appeared so 
far. Have students rewrite a short scene of their choice from the first-person point 
of view of that character. Have volunteers read their scenes aloud to the class. 
What equips their character to tell the story? What does this character's point of 
view add to the story? What is lost? 

F] Homework 

Read from the break on page 39 to the break on page 53. Ask your students to 
pay close attention to the letter Stella sends Rosa. What do we learn about Stella? 


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The main character in a work of literature is called the "protagonist." The 
protagonist often overcomes a weakness or ignorance to achieve a new 
understanding by the work's end. A protagonist who acts with great courage 
may be called a "hero." Readers often debate the virtues and motivations of 
the protagonists in the attempt to understand whether they are heroic. The 
protagonists journey is made more dramatic by challenges presented by 
characters with different beliefs. A "foil" provokes the protagonist so as to 
highlight more clearly certain features of the main character. The most 
important foil, the "antagonist," is any character or force in a literary work 
that opposes the efforts of the protagonist, barring or complicating his or 
her success. The antagonist doesn't necessarily have to be a person. It could 
be nature, a social force, or an internal drive in the protagonist. 


Discussion Activities 

Rosa Lublin is the protagonist of The Shawl. Who or what is Rosa's most 
formidable antagonist? Discuss Stella's letter to Rosa (pp. 31-33). Is it reasonable 
for Stella to expect Rosa to move on with her life? Do your students find her 
letter cruel or helpful? Ask them to support their answers with passages from the 

Simon Persky serves as a foil for Rosa. Copy and distribute Handout Three, 
"Jewish Immigration to the United States." Rosa repeatedly tells Persky, "My 
Warsaw isn't your Warsaw" What does she mean by this? Persky calls Rosa a 
refugee and she thinks of him as an immigrant. How do the circumstances under 
which Rosa and Persky came to the United States color their views of life and 
each other? 

Although Magda dies in the first story, Rosa attempts to keep her alive through 
memory. Read Rosa's letter to Magda aloud (pp. 39-44). Discuss the life Rosa 
invents for Magda. What traits does Rosa give her daughter? Why might those 
traits be particularly important to Rosa? Do your students ever feel as if their 
own parents project unfulfilled desires onto them? How might Rosa be doing the 

Writing Exercise 

Rosa writes to Magda, "You have a legacy of choice, and they say choice is the only 
true freedom" (p. 43). What does Rosa mean when she tells Magda that choice is 
freedom? Does she live her life with this in mind? Ask your students to write 
three paragraphs considering whether choice is "the only true freedom." 


Have students finish reading the book. Ask them to pay very close attention to 
the passage about the ghetto that begins with the last paragraph on page 67 and 
runs to the break on page 69. 

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An author uses images, similes, metaphors and symbols to help the reader 
visualize and experience events and emotions contained within a story. 

Cynthia Ozick believes figurative language is critical to understanding 
literature and uses it masterfully throughout The Shawl. In a 1998 Atlantic 
Monthly interview she said, "Just as you can't grasp anything without an 
opposable thumb, you can't write anything without the aid of metaphor. 
Metaphor is the mind's opposable thumb." In her essay "Metaphor and 
Memory" she writes, "Without the metaphor of memory and history, we 
cannot imagine the life of the Other. We cannot imagine what it is to be 
someone else. Metaphor is the reciprocal agent, the universalizing force: it 
makes possible the power to envision the stranger's heart." 

Discussion Activities 

Parables are metaphorical stories that use realistic characters and circumstances 
to make a point They often carry a strong message that has meaning beyond its 
literal reading. Stella calls Rosa a "parable maker." In her last letter to Magda, Rosa 
recounts a story about a woman with a head of lettuce traveling through Warsaw 
on the tramcar. Read aloud from the last paragraph on page 67 to the break on 
page 69. 

Rosa writes, "The most astounding thing was that the most ordinary streetcar, 
bumping along on the most ordinary trolley tracks, and carrying the most 
ordinary citizens going from one section of Warsaw to another, ran straight into 
the place of our misery. Every day, and several times a day, we had these 
witnesses" (p. 68). Ask your students why Poles traveling through the ghetto on 
the tramcar might have been unwilling to help the Jews. Do they believe people 
today would react differently? Why or why not? 

What does Rosa mean when she writes, "And in this place now I am like the 
woman who held the lettuce in the tramcar. I said all this in my store, talking to 
the deaf"(p. 69)? Why would a head of lettuce be so important to Rosa? What 
lessons does the parable of the woman with the lettuce teach? Why is it 
important to Rosa that her story is heard? 

Writing Exercise 

Write Ozicks quotes on metaphor on the blackboard. Ask your students to write 
three paragraphs considering why Rosa refuses forget what happened during the 
Holocaust. Why does she feel she must tell others what happened? How does 
bearing witness to these events help Rosa cope with horrible memories of life in 
the Warsaw ghetto and the extermination camp? 

EJ Homework 


Have students page through the book to find examples of objects that could be 
considered symbolic. Ask them to write two paragraphs about one of the book's 
symbols. How is the symbolic meaning different from the literal value of the 
object? How does this inform our understanding of the story or characters? 

National Endowment for the Arts 



Symbols are interpretive keys to the text. The craft of storytelling depends 
on symbols that present ideas and point toward new meanings. Most 
frequently, a specific object will be used to reference (or symbolize) a more 
abstract concept. The repeated appearance of an object suggests a non- 
literal or figurative meaning attached to the object — above and beyond face 
value. Symbols are often found in the books title, within a profound action, 
or captured by the name or personality of a character. The life of a book is 
perpetuated by generations of readers interpreting and re-interpreting the 
main symbols of the story. 

Discussion Activities 

In the book's opening story, Rosa swaddles her infant daughter Magda in a shawl 
to protect her and keep her warm. Throughout the rest of the book, the shawl 
represents different things to different characters. Ask your students to consider 
what the shawl meant to Magda, an infant barely clinging to life in an 
extermination camp. What did the shawl represent to fourteen-year-old Stella? To 
Rosa, a young mother? Why do your students think Rosa kept the shawl for more 
than thirty years? Over the years, did the shawl begin to represent something 
different to Rosa? If so, what? As an adult, how does Stella feel about the shawl? 
Are her feelings justifiable? Why or why not? 

After her trip to the laundromat, Rosa notices a pair of her underwear is missing. 
Why is Rosa so upset by the loss? Ozick writes, "Because of the missing 
underwear, she had no dignity before him. She considered Persky's life: how trivial 
it must always have been: buttons, himself no more significant than a button. It was 
plain he took her to be another button like himself, battered and now out of 
fashion[. . .]" (p. 55). Ask your students to consider the reasons why losing such an 
intimate item might be especially upsetting to Rosa. Why was it particularly 
humiliating for Rosa to think Persky took them? 

Writing Exercise 

On the day Rosa and Persky meet, she is ashamed when Persky, a retired button 
manufacturer, notices her dress is missing a button. Later, when he visits her 
apartment and offers to take her to the library, Rosa is touched. "A thread of 
gratitude pulled in her throat He almost understood what she was: no ordinary 
button" (p. 57). Ask your students to read that scene again and then write a two- 
page essay on what buttons symbolize to Rosa. How are the actual image and its 
symbolic value appropriate considering Rosas background and history? Have your 
students support their ideas with passages from the text 

EJ Homework 

Ask your students to make a list of Rosa strengths and weaknesses. They should 
support each trait with a passage from the text 

National Endowment tor the Arts 


Lesson Seven 



Stories, novellas, and novels trace the development of characters that 
encounter a series of challenges. Most characters contain a complex balance 
of virtues and vices. Internal and external forces require characters to 
question themselves, overcome fears, or reconsider dreams. The protagonist 
undergoes profound change. A close study of character development maps 
the evolution of motivation, personality, and belief in each character. Still, 
the tension between a characters strengths and weaknesses keeps the reader 
guessing about what might happen next, affecting the drama and the plot. 

In The Shawl, Rosa struggles to survive in a world that seems to have 
forgotten the atrocities of the Holocaust. Rosa's life is defined by her need 
to bear witness to the cruelty she experienced, while Stella attempts to move 
past the horrors of the extermination camp. Rosa tells Persky, "Stella is self- 
indulgent. She wants to wipe out memory." Persky becomes the one person 
in Rosa's life who truly listens, and their continued friendship offers a bit of 
hope at the book's end. 

Discussion Activities 

Using their homework from the night before, ask your students to list some of 
Rosa's strengths and weaknesses on the blackboard. Talk about each of these 
traits while referring to the text. Have the students listed more good qualities or 
bad? Ask them if they find Rosa to be a sympathetic character. Do they consider 
her a heroic protagonist? Why or why not? Who or what serves as an antagonist 
to Rosa? What do we learn about her character from these forces of conflict? 

Persky provides comic relief during what is otherwise a very serious work of 
fiction. What do we learn about Persky 's and Rosa's personalities during their 
banter? How does Persky use humor to gain Rosa's trust? Both Persky and Stella 
suggest that Rosa should forget about her life in Poland. Why might Rosa listen to 
Persky when she cannot bear to have Stella tell her to move on with life? 

Writing Exercise 

Many Polish citizens were highly assimilated Jews. Until Hitler's Holocaust, they did 
not necessarily consider their religion to be their primary identification. Ask your 
students to write a two-page essay on the character that best assimilates to 
American culture. Does the need to assimilate to American culture deepen or 
cure the wounds left from the war? Have students support their thesis with 
passages from the text 

E2 Homework 

Have students page through the book and identify three major turning points. 

I * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 


The Plot 

The author artfully builds a plot structure to create expectations, increase 
suspense, and inform character development. The timing of events from 
beginning to middle to end can make a book predictable or riveting. A 
plot, propelled by a crisis, will reach a climax, and close with a resolution 
(sometimes called denouement). Foreshadowing and flashbacks allow the 
author to defy time while telling the story. A successful author will keep a 
reader entranced by clever pacing built within the tale, sometimes 
confounding a simple plot by telling stories within stories. 

The events that took place in the Warsaw ghetto and the extermination 
camp shape the way Rosa views herself and others. Convinced that Persky 
has violated her trust by taking her underpants, Rosa calls him a thief. The 
next morning she finds them inside a towel. Immediately afterward, she 
goes downstairs to talk to the receptionist about having her phone 
reconnected. The long-awaited package from Stella is there but, rather than 
excitement, Rosa initially feels indifferent when she sees the colorless cloth 
laying in the box. During a phone call to Stella, Magda comes alive in 
Rosas imagination just long enough for Rosa to write her the story of the 
woman with the lettuce. Magda slips away when the phone rings. The 
receptionist announces that Persky is downstairs waiting for Rosa. 

Discussion Activities 

Ask your students to identify several major turning points in the book. Discuss 
these turning points with the class. Ask your class to consider what we learn 
about Rosa at each of these moments. Do they feel Rosa changes during the 
course of the book? If so, in what ways does she change? If not, what prevents a 
transformation? What, if any, signs of hope occur in the book's last passages? 

Map a timeline that depicts the dramatic build-up in the book. Do your students 
feel that Magda's death in the first story causes the rest of the book to be 
anticlimactic? Why or why not? 

Writing Exercise 

Outline a sequel to The Shawl. Write a few paragraphs of the sequel's opening 
scene. What happens after Persky comes up to Rosa's room? Do they continue 
their friendship? Does Rosa ever reconcile with Stella? 

EJ Homework 

Ask your students to identify three major themes in the book. 

National Endowment for the Arts 


Lesson Nine 


Themes of 
the Book 

Profound questions raised by the story allow the character (and the reader) 
to explore the meaning of human life and extract themes. Themes 
investigate topics explored for centuries by philosophers, politicians, 
scientists, historians, and theologians. Classic themes include intellectual 
freedom versus censorship, personal moral code in relation to political 
justice, and spiritual faith versus rational commitments. A work of fiction 
can shed light on these age-old debates by creating new situations to 
challenge and explore human nature. 

Discussion Activities and Writing Exercise 

Use the following questions to stimulate discussion or provide writing exercises in 
order to interpret the book in specific ways. Using historical references to 
support ideas, explore the statements The Shawl makes about the following 
themes and the themes your students identify during their reading of the book 


Rosa writes to Magda,"When I had my store, I used to 'meet the public,' and I 
wanted to tell everybody — not only our story, but other stories as well. Nobody 
knew anything. This amazed me, that nobody remembered what happened only a 
little while ago" (p. 66). 

Why does Rosa feel compelled to tell her story to people who do not want to 
hear it? What does she hope to accomplish? Do people have a responsibility to 
study history? Why or why not? 


Rosa often feels ashamed. Discuss instances that cause Rosa embarrassment Why 
do these events cause such profound pain? Refer again to the passage on pages 
53-6 1. What does Rosa mean when she says she is "no ordinary button"? How 
might it have been important NOT to be ordinary while trying to survive in a 
death camp? Does the desire to be something special influence Rosa in positive 
ways or negative ones? Support your answers with references to the text 


Rosa tells Persky that people have three lives — "the life before, the life during, and 
the life after." Discuss Rosa's three lives. Which is the most important to her? 
Does Rosa have the power to change "the life after?" Why or why not? 

EJ Homework 

Ask students to begin their essays using the Essay Topics in this guide. Outlines are 
due the next class period. 


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What Makes 
a Great 

Works of fiction can illustrate the connections between individuals and 
questions of humanity. Great stories articulate and explore the mysteries of 
our daily lives, while painting those conflicts in the larger picture of human 
struggle. Readers forge bonds with the story as the writer's voice, style, and 
sense of poetry inform the plot, characters, and themes. By creating 
opportunities for learning, imagining, and reflecting, a great book is a work 
of art that affects many generations of readers, changing lives, challenging 
assumptions, and breaking new ground. 

Discussion Activities 

Ask students to make a list of the characteristics of a great book. Write these on 
the board. What elevates a work of fiction to greatness? Then ask them to discuss, 
within groups, other books they know that include some of these characteristics. 
Do any of these books remind them of The Shawl? Is this a great book? 

A great writer can be the voice of a generation. What kind of voice does Cynthia 
Ozick create in The Shawl? Does this story speak about more than one woman's 
personal trauma? What can we learn about the importance of memory and 
history from reading this book? Human dignity? The will to live? 

Divide students into groups and have each group determine the single most 
important theme of the book. Have a spokesperson from each group explain the 
group's decision, with references from the text. Write these themes on the board. 
Do all the groups agree? 

Writing Exercise 

Ask students to write a letter to a friend, perhaps one who does not like to read, 
explaining why The Shawl is a good book. The student should make an argument 
that explains why this book has meaning for all people, even those who have no 
interest in other times or other places. 

E3 Homework 

Students will finish their essays. 

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The discussion activities and writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics, 
as do the Discussion Questions in the Readers Guide. Advanced students can come up with their 
own essay topics, as long as they are specific and compelling. Other ideas for essays are provided 

For essays, students should organize their ideas around a thesis about the book. This statement or 
thesis should be focused, with clear reasons supporting its conclusion. The thesis and supporting 
reasons should be backed by references to the text. 

Several times over the course of the novella, 4. 

we find statements very much like this one: 
"Without a life, a person lives where they can. 
If all they got is thoughts, that's where they live" 
(pp. 27-28). After all Rosa has lost, is she 
justified in separating herself from life? Why or 
why not? Do Stella or Persky offer better 
examples of how to live after experiencing 
disappointment or trauma? 

Should Stella feel responsible for Magda's 
death? What sort of person is Stella as an 
adult? Why does Rosa feel she is cold and self- 
indulgent? Are Rosa's attitudes toward Stella 
justified? Why or why not? How would you 5. 

characterize Stella's feelings for Rosa? 

Stella believes Magda to be the product of 
Rosa's rape by a Nazi soldier but Rosa insists 
she conceived the baby with Andrzej, her pre- 
war fiance. Who do you believe? If Stella is 
right, why would Rosa make up such and 
elaborate history for Magda? Why would she 
have chosen to give her daughter both a Jewish 
and a Christian heritage? Do you find it 
surprising that Rosa imagines an American life 
for Magda? Why or why not? 

Why is Rosa so offended by Dr. Tree's letter? 
Why does she resist the terms "survivor" and 
"refugee" but embrace simply being called a 
human being? Does this attitude seem at odds 
with her desire not to be "an ordinary button"? 
Does being called a "human being" bear 
witness to the events Rosa experienced in the 
ghetto and death camp? Why or why not? 
Why has Ozick chosen to include the scholar, 
Dr. Tree? Why has she chosen a scholar in 
"clinical social pathology" and not a Holocaust 
historian? Is Ozick making a statement about 
scholarly interest in human tragedy? 

What does Rosa mean when she tells Persky, 
"My Warsaw is not your Warsaw?" What does 
Rosa imagine his family was like? What evidence 
is there that she is correct? How do Persky's 
views about life in America differ from Rosa's? 
Why do they differ? 


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Teachers may consider the ways in which these activities may be linked to other Big Read 
community events. Most of these projects could be shared at a local library, a student assembly, or 
a bookstore. 

1 . Have the students create a photo gallery of 4. 
Warsaw before, during, and after World War II. 

If possible, try to include scenes and persons 
reflective of the The Shawl: a home of a well-to- 
do family, a synagogue, Nazi soldiers, the 
Warsaw ghetto, and so on. Display the gallery 
in the classroom or school library. 

2. Show your class the DVD of Schindler's List 
Following the screening, lead a class discussion 
to explore the accuracy of the portrayals of the 
movie and The Shawl, in both detail and spirit. 5. 

3. Ask your class to collect various buttons. After 
your class has collected as many buttons as 
they can, create a display. More than six million 
Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. 
Calculate how many lives each button collected 
would have to represent. Display your 
collection along with photos and stories of 
those who perished in the extermination 
camps. The United States Holocaust Memorial 
Museum ( is a good resource 
for the photos and stories. 

Ozick turned The Shawl into a play by the same 
name. Work with a theater teaching-artist to 
have student adapt scenes from the novel. 
Student-writers might learn to direct their 
adaptation with the assistance of a teaching- 
artist. Other students might create stage sets 
for each scene. Perform these scenes at a 
school assembly or Big Read event. Or, have 
students from the theater club perform 

Have the students draw a series of portraits of 
Rosa Lublin at various stages of her life: the 
happy child; the enthusiastic student; the 
protective mother; the young woman whose 
world has been destroyed; the older woman 
troubled by society's ability to forget so easily. 
Display these Stages of a Life in the classroom. 

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Jewish Life in Pre- World War II Poland 

For centuries Jews from all over the world sought 
refuge in Poland, located in eastern Europe 
between Germany and the former Soviet Union. 
The first large migration of Jews began during the 
Crusades, in the late 1 1 th and early 1 2th centuries. 
Encouraged by the religious tolerance they found, 
Jewish families settled, established communities, 
and eventually became the cornerstone of the 
Polish economy. 

The 12th through 20th centuries were punctuated 
by periods of anti-Semitism fueled by xenophobia 
and envy of the Jews' perceived control of the 
economy. Still, compared with much of Europe, 
Poland remained relatively tolerant. According to 
the 1 93 1 census, more than three million Jews 
lived in Poland — Europe's largest Jewish 
population. Newspapers appeared in Hebrew, 
Yiddish, and Polish. Jewish schools — both religious 
and secular — promoted scholarship and intellectual 
debate that influenced the Jewish community 

Jewish life and culture especially thrived in Warsaw, 
the country's capital city. A beautiful metropolis 
bisected by the Vistula River, Warsaw housed the 
world's second largest Jewish community after 
New York City. Before World War II began, Jews 
comprised nearly thirty percent of the city's 
population. The largest and most beautiful 
synagogue in Warsaw was known as the "Great 
Synagogue" in Tlomackie Square. It held more 
than two thousand people and had meeting rooms, 
a library, an archive, and a heder (school). 

Though some Jews maintained their own religious 
and cultural traditions, other families were highly 
assimilated. They identified themselves first as 
Polish citizens and only secondly by religion. They 
conducted their lives just as any other Polish citizen 
and a person passing on the street would not have 
known they were Jewish. 

Poland's central location and large Jewish 
population made it a target of the Nazi regime. 
German troops invaded Poland in September 
1939. The Nazis immediately placed heavy 
restrictions on Jews. Jewish businesses were 
required to display the Star of David as a symbol of 
Jewish identity. Jews could not have bank accounts, 
hold large amounts of money, or work in the 
textile or leather trades. By November 1939, the 
Nazis required all Jews to wear a blue armband 
with the Star of David. The Nazi regime closed 
Jewish schools, confiscated Jewish property, and 
forced Jewish citizens into labor camps. Jews could 
not own radios, attend movies, enter a post office, 
or mail letters overseas. In October 1 940, the Nazis 
degreed that all Jews in Warsaw must move to a 
sealed-off area that came to be known as the 
"Warsaw Ghetto." 


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The Warsaw Ghetto 

During World War II, the Germans established 
ghettos throughout Europe that separated Jews 
from the rest of the population and isolated Jewish 
communities from each other. This allowed Nazis 
to maintain control and arrange deportations to 
forced labor, concentration, and extermination 
camps. In October 1940, just over a year after 
Germany invaded Poland, the Nazi regime required 
all Warsaw's Jewish citizens and those from nearby 
towns to move to a designated area. This area, 
sealed off from the rest of the city, eventually held 
over 400,000 people — more than a third of the 
local population — but comprised less than five 
percent of Warsaw's land area. 

The Nazis established a Judenrat (Jewish Council) 
to uphold order inside the ghetto. The Judenrat did 
not know the Reich's ultimate plan demanded the 
complete extermination of all European Jews. They 
cooperated with the Nazis in vain hope of saving 
lives. Jewish council members who refused to 
cooperate were often killed or transported to one of 
the camps. 

Food allotments rationed by the German 
authorities were not enough to sustain life. As a 
result, a black market developed. Countless Jews 
sold their few remaining possessions in order to 
purchase food or medicine. Between 1940 and 
1942 nearly 100,000 people died of illness and 
starvation while living inside the Warsaw Ghetto. 

At the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, the 
Nazis decided on what they called "The Final 
Solution," the systematic murder of all Jews living 
within the Reich. They established extermination 

camps with specialized gas chambers capable of 
killing large numbers of people. From July until 
October 1942, the Nazis sent more than 300,000 
Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka, an 
extermination camp in a sparsely populated area 
fifty miles outside of Warsaw. Information trickled 
back to the ghetto about what was taking place 

Several Jewish resistance groups decided to fight 
back with smuggled guns and homemade weapons. 
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the largest and 
most important opposition effort organized by the 
Jewish resistance during World War II. On April 
19, 1943, the ghetto fighters opened fire on 
German SS and police when they attempted to 
deport the remaining Warsaw Jews. 

Despite being vastly outnumbered and short of 
weapons, the ghetto fighters inflicted heavy 
casualties in the first days of the battle. Germans 
began burning the ghetto building by building to 
flush out the fighters. They regained control of the 
ghetto and, on May 16, 1943, German General 
Jurgen Stroop ordered the destruction of the Great 
Synagogue on Tlomackie Street as a symbol of 
German victory. The 56,000 Jews that remained in 
Warsaw were either shot or transported to 
extermination camps. 

National Endowment for the Arts 



Jewish Immigration to the United States 

Anti-Semitism, overpopulation, and racial 
discrimination prompted many Jews to leave 
Eastern Europe in the late 1 800s and early 1 900s. 
Between 1880 and 1924, when the United States 
adopted immigration restrictions, more than two 
millions Jews came to America. Many of these 
immigrants were unskilled laborers, struggling to 
learn English. Enticed by freedom and 
opportunity, they primarily settled in large cities 
such as New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and 
Chicago and found work in factories, 
manufacturing, and construction. This wave of 
immigrants embraced the American experience 
and made the country their new home. By the 
turn of the century, most major cities in the 
United States had thriving Jewish communities. 

As Jews assimilated to the United States they made 
significant contributions to the country's 
intellectual and cultural life. In The Shawl, Simon 
Persky brags that film legend Lauren Bacall (born 
Betty Joan Perske to Jewish immigrant parents) is 
his cousin. Broadway composer Irving Berlin, 
magician Harry Houdini, and science fiction writer 
Isaac Asimov all came to America as children, part 
of the vast wave of European Jewish immigrants. 
Like Simon Persky, they found an America full of 
opportunity and embraced the American dream. 

However, after World War I attitudes toward 
immigration began to change. Congress passed a 
series of laws to limit the flow of immigrants. 
During the Holocaust, obtaining a visa became an 
issue of life and death. The United States, like 
many countries, initially refused to allow Jewish 
refugees and stood silent while millions of Jews 
died at the hands of the Nazi regime. 

Just before the outbreak of World War II on May 
13, 1939, the St. Louis sailed from Hamburg to 
Havana, Cuba. Almost all the passengers were Jews 
fleeing Nazi anti-Seminitism. Most applied for 
U.S. visas and planned to stay in Cuba only until 
they could enter the United States. Ultimately, 
Cuba did not allow the ship to dock. The 
passengers on board were stranded. The United 
States government was aware of the situation and 
had been asked to allow the refugees safe haven. 
The government refused, and most of the 
passengers were sent back to Europe just as World 
War II began. 

Nearly five years later in January 1 944 the 
Roosevelt Administration, faced with undeniable 
evidence of what was taking place in the Nazi 
extermination camps, formed the War Refugee 
Board. An executive order established a new policy 
that promised "to take all measures within its 
power to rescue the victims of enemy oppression 
who are in imminent danger of death and 
otherwise to afford such victims all possible relief 
and assistance consistent with the successful 
prosecution of the war." This directive created a 
safe haven for many Jewish Holocaust survivors. 

Though many refugees embraced the opportunities 
provided in America, Rosa Lublin represents the 
feelings of refugees — Jewish and non-Jewish — who 
never desired to leave their home countries and 
who did so only under duress. Rosa longs for the 
security, comfort, and familiarity of her native 
Poland even as she realizes that it's the product of a 
past life, a life stolen from her by the atrocities of 
the Holocaust. 

I 8 • THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 


Bachrach, Susan D. TellThemWe Remember: The Story of the 

Holocaust Boston: Little, Brown, 1 994. 

The Holocaust as presented in the United States Holocaust 

Memorial Museum and illustrated with historical 

photographs. Sidebars tell the personal stories of more than 

20 young people who suffered or died during the 


Landau, Elaine. TheWarsaw Ghetto Uprising. New York: 
Macmillan, 1 992. 

After briefly describing the creation of the Warsaw ghetto, 
the author concentrates on the 28 days of the uprising. 

Meltzer, Milton. Never to Forget : The Jews of the Holocaust 
New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1977. 
One of the first books on the Holocaust written for 
young people. 

Weisel, Elie. Night 1 972. New York: Farrar, Straus, and 
Giroux, 2006. 

Elie Weisel's haunting account of surviving the Holocaust as 
a young man. 

Web sites 

The web site of the United States Holocaust Memorial 
Museum offers educational material, photo archives, 
interviews with survivors, and more. 
"A Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust" produced by the 
Florida Center for Instructional Technology, College of 
Education, University of South Florida. 

http://www I 


The site contains photographs taken in the Warsaw Ghetto 

and offers scholarly analysis and brief captions for each 

"Memory of the Camps," a production of PBS that 
incorporates footage from the liberation of a death camp, is 
one of the most definitive and unforgettable records of the 
This is a companion site to the PBS documentary on 
America's response to the Holocaust It includes a timeline 
of events, transcripts from the broadcast eyewitness 
interviews, scanned images of original documents, maps, 
photographs, and a teacher's guide. 

National Endowment for the Arts 


National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Standards' 

1 . Students read a wide range of print and non- 
print texts to build an understanding of texts, 
of themselves, and of the cultures of the United 
States and the world; to acquire new 
information; to respond to the needs and 
demands of society and the workplace; and for 
personal fulfillment Among these texts are 
fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary 

2. Students read a wide range of literature from 
many periods in many genres to build an 
understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., 
philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human 

3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to 
comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate 
texts. They draw on their prior experience, 
their interactions with other readers and 
writers, their knowledge of word meaning and 
of other texts, their word identification 
strategies, and their understanding of textual 
features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, 
sentence structure, context, graphics). 

4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, 
and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, 
vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a 
variety of audiences and for different purposes. 

5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as 
they write and use different writing process 
elements appropriately to communicate with 
different audiences for a variety of purposes. 

6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, 
language conventions (e.g., spelling and 
punctuation), media techniques, figurative 
language, and genre to create, critique, and 
discuss print and non-print texts. 

7. Students conduct research on issues and 
interests by generating ideas and questions, and 
by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and 
synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., 
print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to 
communicate their discoveries in ways that 
suit their purpose and audience. 

8. Students use a variety of technological and 
information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, 
computer networks, video) to gather and 
synthesize information and to create and 
communicate knowledge. 

9. Students develop an understanding of and 
respect for diversity in language use, patterns, 
and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, 
geographic regions, and social roles. 

1 0. Students whose first language is not English 
make use of their first language to develop 
competency in the English language arts and to 
develop understanding of content across the 

I I . Students participate as knowledgeable, 
reflective, creative, and critical members of a 
variety of literacy communities. 

1 2. Students use spoken, written, and visual 
language to accomplish their own purposes 
(e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and 
the exchange of information). 

This guide was developed with NCTE Standards and State Language Arts Standards in mind. Use these standards to guide and develop 
your application of the curriculum. 

20 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 

an opposable thumb, you can't write anything 

without the aid of metaphor. Metaphor is the 

mind's opposable thumb." 



It was a magic shawl, 
it could nourish an 
infant for three days 
and three nights." 

from The Shawl 

The Big Read is an initiative of the National 
Endowment for the Arts designed to restore reading 
to the center of American culture. The NEA presents 
The Big Read in partnership with the Institute of 
Museum and Library Services and in cooperation 
with Arts Midwest. 

••'/& . .INSTITUTE ol , .. 

•.:•.. Museum.ndLibrary 

'.••.•• SERVICES 

A great nation deserves great art.